Can capitalism save the world? That’s the big and surprising question addressed by Robin Chase in Peers Inc.*
It was less than 20 years ago that I first watched Rollerball. A 70’s movie than imagined a world owned and run by corporations rather than countries. It was a dystopian fantasy then but it’s one that seems to be creeping into our 21st-century world. Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft all have control of our lives and it’s something we’ve given into willingly. We even take on specific teams, iPhone v Android, PC v Mac.
In Peers Inc Robin Chase offers a counterbalance to this future. She imagines a better world, where capitalism can be used as a force for good.
Robin was the founder of Zipcar, a car-sharing service that allows people to rent a car by the hour rather than own one. I saw her speak at Inspirefest earlier this year and was so impressed I picked up her book.
The foundation of Zipcar, AirBnB, Uber, Google Maps even WhatsApp is what Robin calls ‘excess capacity’, making full use of the resources we already have.
Airbnb lets us rent our spare rooms, transforming that excess capacity into income. Zipcar means we don’t need to buy a car that sits in the drive all the time, we can share one with others. Google maps let us use the unused computing power on our phones and the satellite system to find our way around.
This is a concept I can buy into, it’s green and I can see why Robin thinks it could help address climate change as a result.
Benefits of excess capacity
I often look back to the days before the internet. I felt crippled back then, even the simplest tasks could take ages. I spent countless hours on hold on the phone, making visits to the post office, getting lost travelling. Having the internet at my fingertips is more than convenience it is an essential part of my lifestyle.
Excess capacity makes my life even easier. I can now book a room in any city in the world, not just a soulless hotel room but a place embedded in the culture. I can hire a cab, I can make a call for free on WhatsApp and most importantly for me I can find my way around. All whilst sitting in a cafe waiting for a friend.
Earlier this year I rented an apartment in East Village NYC. Have you seen the price of hotel rooms there? I had my own front door, a fridge full of beer, wifi, the cleaners didn’t come in to disrupt my lie ins and best of all I didn’t have to chat to people at the front desk. It was wonderful to step outside the door and feel like a New Yorker. Yes, I could have stayed in a hotel but this was cheaper and infinitely more comfortable.
If you own a car you have to look after the parking, the maintenance, insurance, tax, fuel. All that for something you probably spend as little time in as possible. With Zipcar or it’s alternatives you can own a car for an hour and pay by the hour. Imagine how much hassle and cost that saves.
Disadvantages of Peers Inc.
When you enter into a relationship with an excess capacity company it’s a two-way relationship. Yes, you are the customer but your Uber drivers and Airbnb hosts rate you the same way you rate them.
Robin gives an example in the book of a client they banned from the service after not reporting an issue with the car she’d rented (an issue she had caused).
If you get banned or get bad reviews you have very little recourse, you are no longer a part of the organisation.
It’s worse for service providers. Have an off day driving your Uber and you could be banned from providing transport in the future. If we all give up our jobs and become self-employed excess capacity providers, we are at the mercy of the big companies. We have no recourse if we are struck off the register, no rights as an employee.
Corporations can fail
If there is one thing we learned from the financial crisis it’s that no one is too big to fail. We may commit our time and resources to hosting on Airbnb but what happens if they change their model or go out of business? We’re left without a platform to market ourselves on.
A manifesto for change
Excess capacity is the basis of the book and there are many case studies that made me feel warm and fluffy. Stories of people who wouldn’t be noticed or be able to excel without the tools that it allows.
There was the teenage Minecraft fanatic Ethan who built a games company just through online interaction. On the Internet no one knows you are 12 years old or cares.
There was Gretchen, the frustrated artist turned lawyer who found a market for her art on Etsy.
There were Uber drivers, Airbnb hosts, all of whom were enjoying a better quality of life because of Peers Inc.
But does all this good news really mean capitalism can change? Can we encourage corporations to abandon the quest for wealth, even a little bit to make the world a better place?
Can corporations be a force for good?
This is where the vision collapses, at least a bit. Although Robin does address how some large companies are adding environmental and social goals to financial ones in their formal requirements, I wonder can this takeoff. Will corporations see the value in collaboration? In exploiting excess capacity?
Can every business engage with enough peers, employees and contractors to make the world a better place? I’d love to think yes but it seems a bit far fetched.
Is it worth the read?
There are some wonderful moments in this book. I didn’t know that reCAPTCHA, those annoying photos of numbers and words you have to re-type to register for some web pages, was also repurposed as a way of turning scanned newspaper and book images into machine readable text.
I hadn’t thought about how we got access to all those satellites to help us navigate around using SatNav (Because governments gave us free access).
I didn’t know that if I take a language course for free with Duolingo I’d be helping translate content for other companies.
Although Peers Inc is food for thought I wonder it’s really a solution to climate change? To unemployment? I believe it does nothing to change our two tier society. Those ‘with’ keep their big homes and cars and those ‘without’ service them. Can capitalism save the world? I’m not convinced.
It’s a manifesto that still hands power to the Inc’s. It doesn’t smash the power of corporations but instead makes us all participants. Instead of breaking free from the RollerBall model it could just push us one step closer.
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